Martina Evans: ‘Writing saved my life’
By Michael McDonagh
Martina Evans first started working here as a radiographer at the Whittington Hospital and somehow ended up as a novelist and critically acclaimed poet.
Martina Evans, the youngest of ten children, grew up in the 1960s and ‘70w in a small County Cork shop with a petrol pump and bar, in Burnfort, and came to London in the early 1980s to work as a radiographer.
Today she is an acclaimed, award-winning poet who lives in London and has written eleven books of highly acclaimed, award-winning prose and poetry, known for catching the genuine Irish vernacular.
Her most recent book Now We Can Talk Openly about Men is a pair of dramatic monologues, snapshots of the lives of two women in 1920s Ireland.
She spoke to the Irish World about how her career took such a diverse turn.
IW: It was a hospital career brought you to London?
“Radiography was not what I chose for myself but it was my family’s idea that it would be a good job, but I was totally unsuited to it, books were my main love and I wanted to study English.
“I did actually get to do English as well – but by studying at the Open University, using the Belfast address of a friend up there, who sent me the stuff.
“I got married quite young and both my husband and all our generation back in the ‘80s found it hard to get work in Ireland.
“Back then very few radiographers were trained in Ireland and most of them failed so only five of us qualified in the whole of Ireland that year.
“I could have worked anywhere but all our friends were over here. The thing is that both of us wanted to go.
“I had this insane idea that I wanted to write but coming from the background I had it was mad as nobody was doing it.
“Nowadays when I go back everybody is doing creative writing courses and there are writing festivals here there and everywhere.”
“We came over and it was hard for a while. I was on-call, first in Harley Street through an agency, then in a clinic where they asked me to stay on and I stayed on.
“We moved to Holloway as it was so easy for Declan’s job to get the tube to Chancery Lane and I moved to the Whittington. That was about 1981 and I did 15 years of it and then I started writing.”
IW: How did you start to write?
“For the first couple of years I just trying bits of writing and I thought it was terrible. Then my father died and after that there was a complete explosion of poetry and I was surprised again as poetry for me was something way off the planet that nobody did.
“I was so surprised, but I think it is just something that erupts from within.
“I noticed when I started teaching, because of the way it is taught, people just don’t get exposed to poetry, it often comes to people around the time of a death.
“People say everybody has a novel in them that is completely untrue as you have to be suited to that thing. I prefer stories anyway, short stories.”
IW: Your first work was a conventional novel, but your latest book is in a unique poetry style. Do you prefer to write poetry to novels?
“I thought I’d write a novel then leave radiography, which I did eventually.
“Then they got me to write a second novel then another. That was never my plan as I thought I’d write one novel and make enough money to give up work and sit at home writing poetry with my child.
“Then I was on this thing when they expected me to keep writing novels and that made me really miserable. All the novels got really good reviews – but the sales were not enough.
“I could have gone on, but I did not want to, and I am quite experimental by nature, but I was so miserable, when I found myself chained to a desk.
“People said I was mad to give up as nobody reads poetry, but I always had to work so with radiography, or teaching, and then writing a novel and bringing up a child it was tough.
“It was only after doing all that I got to do what I like, which is just stupid.
“I wanted to be happy, why would you not want to be happy, which is why I started writing these longer forms because I didn’t want to write a novel, I wanted to do poetry that was longer – because I believe with poetry you can do anything.
“Poetry is about compressing everything down to the smallest particle. It is all different. Petrol, my fourth novel, was 80,000 words.
IW: Your most recent book tells two parallel stories about a turbulent time and incident in 1920s Ireland in Mallow, and features women and their relationship with a British Army officer. Was that research or personal family history?
“What appealed to me were eyewitness accounts. I found some in the British Library and in a De Valera propaganda magazine. They sounded very much like things my mother would say.
“My father was in the IRA and sadly and embarrassingly he was a Blue Shirt by the time he was 20, which is relevant to how this book kind of happened.
“Mammy was fantastic as she had heard all the stories growing up, she was born in 1919 and as a toddler had been plucked up by the Tans.
“She recalled nothing, but she had heard them telling all the stories and she told me them. Daddy never spoke about it and I regret not asking him more when he was alive. The stories that really drew me in were the stories about teenagers.
“I hated writing the novel because for me it was like doing the Leaving Cert all over again and I wanted to write poetry so much.
“[The book title] had nothing to do with #MeToo – the joke of it was that my mother and her friends were talking about each other, not men, but #MeToo came out around the same time and I meant ‘men’ as in Mankind.
“I noticed it was ten syllables so I put it all into iambic pentameter, and into ten syllables, but it is not quite iambic and much more in the Irish vernacular.
“That was when I knew I had those women, and it was quite close to the way my mother spoke, and I could say what I wanted about the Black ‘n Tans and the Auxiliaries without sounding dribbly or sympathetic.
“They were obviously off their heads. Then I read a story about a man from Hackney who got trapped in Ireland and got away by the skin of his teeth and had been stripped by the IRA and that was interesting as it brought it home to here.”
IW: You grew up in a more restricted Ireland, is that why you, like so many other Irish writers, left?
“I did feel it, but I feel really embarrassed to say it, but I felt I had to get away. It was my family more than anything that I felt I had to get away from as they were too close.
“It gets less as you get older but then you think some giant hand is going to come out of the clouds and grab you by the neck.
“I am always saying to students ‘when you are sitting at your desk nobody is watching you’, it is private so just get the stuff out of yourself.
“It is shocking to think now how different Ireland was at the time Edna O’Brien wrote her first book. Today you would be hard pushed to shock people, Lady Gaga had to dress up in meat to shock people.
IW: So, it was only when you were out of Ireland you were able to write what was in your heart?
“Definitely. My favourite books are JJ Farrell’s Troubles and Woodbrook by David Thomson.
“JJ Farrell grew up here, but he was Irish, although Irish people would not accept him. But, of course, people can write about Ireland from here.”
IW: Who were your influences?
“I love Joyce. To be honest, I don’t think my family was that happy and like most families it had its troubles.
“When I read Joyce, and they had the big row with the Christmas dinner, I thought ‘Oh! Other people can go berserk as well’, it was the voice and that is what they said. Joyce’s favourite instrument was the voice, I loved that. So, I know Joyce influenced me and I read Yeats, but I don’t think he is there, and I loved Patrick Kavanagh.”
IW: Was it hard to get published?
“When I look back I don’t know how I did it as I went to one poetry class but I was afraid of the teacher so did not go and then I would just sit down and write on my own and wrote my novels on my own. But I think I am good at editing and that is what got me through. I was working as a radiographer by day and writing at night and, somehow, I got a two-book deal with Random House.
“I look back now and think ‘How did it happen?’ and it kind of saved my life. Writing really helped me to change my life.”